Steve DeVane | Fayetteville Observer
LUMBERTON — State officials have classified two dams at a Duke Energy coal ash pond in Lumberton as “high hazard” because people could be killed and homes damaged if they failed.
In a separate action, four conservation groups filed federal lawsuits Wednesday against Duke over three other coal ash sites.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the lawsuits under the Clean Water Act on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, Yadkin Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance. The suits focus on issues at the Cape Fear site in Chatham County on the Cape Fear River, the Lee site in Goldsboro on the Neuse River and the Buck site in Salisbury on the Yadkin River.
Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds in North Carolina have been under scrutiny since a spill Feb. 2 at its power plant near Eden. Nearly 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash spilled there, coating dozens of miles of the Dan River in sludge.
Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said coal ash has become an emotionally charged issue. The company wants to respond in a responsible way, she said.
“Duke Energy continues to be committed to closing its North Carolina ash basins in a way that’s fact-based and environmentally sound,” she said.
Four occupied homes are near the Lumberton dams that were classified as high hazard, said Jamie Kritzer, a Department of Environment and Natural Resources spokesman. He did not know how close the homes are to the dams or how many people live in them.
“The dams were given the classification based on potential damage if there is a breach,” he said. “If it were to fail, there’s potential for loss of life and property damage.”
Culbert said the classification is not related to anything that has changed with the dams or their structural integrity.
Kritzer said the department asked Duke to show what would happen if the dams at its coal ash ponds failed. The request was part of the state’s response to the February spill.
The classification could be a factor in determining how soon the Lumberton site is cleaned up if a bill passed by the General Assembly on Aug. 20 becomes law, state officials said. The legislation requires a state commission to prioritize coal ash sites for closure and cleanup.
The high hazard classification means the two dams will be inspected by state officials once a year.
Inspectors found issues with dams at the Lumberton site earlier this year, Kritzer said. On Feb. 21, trees and bushes were growing on a dam, which also was seeping, he said. In April, state officials reviewed video taken by the company that showed that “numerous gushers, weepers, drippers and stains” in pipes of a dam’s spillway system.
Kritzer said state officials approved Duke’s plan to fix the problems in June. Culbert said the company is working on the issues.
Frank Holleman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said state officials had blocked a previous effort to file suit against Duke.
“They got out of the way this time,” he said.
The site on the Cape Fear River has one of the worst dams, Holleman said.
“It’s right upstream of Sanford’s water intake,” he said.
Holleman said Duke should move the coal ash into dry, lined storage facilities away from the state’s waterways.
Culbert said moving the ash into lined facilities is one possible way to clean up the ash. She said the bill passed by the General Assembly lays out a schedule for cleaning up the ponds.
“We’re adjusting our plans to meet those expectations,” Culbert said.
Holleman said the bill would only require the removal of coal ash at four of the 14 sites.
“The other 10 have been left out in the cold,” he said. “We wanted to highlight these three.”
Staff writer Steve DeVane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3572.